Going Pro

Do you want to work with dogs full time, but can’t see how? Do you struggle part time, telling yourself you’ll keep the other job just until the training really takes off? It’s a common refrain. Coaching and supporting dog businesses for a living, I’ve seen every kind of business model and every type of owner, from wildly successful full-timers to weekend hobbyists. Mostly, though, dog pros work part or full time at other jobs, and run a dog business on the side, hoping it will one day support them.

Years of experience have taught me the key differences between pros that make it as full-time entrepreneurs and those that don’t. Read on to see if you have the temperament, skill set, and drive necessary to pull it off. If so, you absolutely can bring a new or part-time business into the full-time realm and make a living doing what you love.

The magic of niches
Most successful dog businesses have one simple concept in common: specialization. This is particularly important if a lot of competitors operate in your geographical area. When a potential client opens the phone book or scans the bulletin board at the local vet office, what will make you stand out? A walker who emphasizes a particular breed will draw owners of that breed. A day care specializing in small dogs will no doubt be more attractive to a Yorkie guardian. Trainers who focus on one type of training or behavioral issue set themselves apart and give clients a reason to call them. If, for example, an owner has a dog with separation anxiety and he sees that a particular trainer specializes in that problem, he is much more likely to call that trainer than the fifteen who advertise generic obedience training. This doesn’t mean, however, that the trainer in question will do nothing but home alone training for the rest of her career. On the contrary. Satisfied clients refer their friends, who again refer their friends, and only a few of those new clients are likely to be sep anx cases. The trick is to get those initial calls so you can begin building the all-important word of mouth.

Tip: Find a niche
Think about what you are particularly good at. Working with small dogs? Unruly adolescents? Dog-baby intros? Family training? Look at what other professionals in your area offer. Is there a gap in the market you can fill? Whatever you decide, make sure it is something you enjoy.

Know where you’re going
Most of us are dog professionals because we love dogs, not business development. When we decide to set up shop, we do the bare minimum necessary: think up a name, file for a business license and other paperwork, have stationery and maybe a brochure printed, and post a few fliers around town. And then we wait eagerly for the phone to ring. Which would work well in an ideal world with endless demand for our product and next-to-zero competition. But the reality is that setting up and marketing a new business, let alone building a profitable one, requires sustained focus, attention, and action. Simply hanging out a shingle rarely does the job, especially if there are other trainers and services available in your area. It is critical to develop a business plan and actively build relationships with other dog service providers (vets, supply stores, groomers, etc.).

Tip: Hatch a plan
Trainers often plan to work part time until the business takes off. Sound familiar? The problem with this strategy is that it doesn’t provide a framework for making anything happen. For that, you need a comprehensive business plan. It doesn’t have to be fancy or formal as long as it helps you assess viability and provides guidance as you move forward. Your plan should include goals for the business, a numbers assessment, a marketing plan—your niche and message, image, services, materials, and how you will get the word out—and an overall checklist of tasks and due dates. If you’re moving from part to full time, decide on a clear set of success indicators (number of clients per month, amount of income, etc.) to help you determine when it’s time to leave your other job.

Tip: Get organized
Scribbling notes on the backs of envelopes doesn’t often inspire confidence. Worse, it hinders the organization that distinguishes a professional business. As soon as you have more than a few clients you need to keep solid records, notes, and training plans. Consider purchasing a ready-made set of tools (diagnostic flowcharts, interview forms, etc.) to save start-up time and effort.

Tip: Establish a schedule and routine
One pitfall of self-employment is the lack of a routine. If a flexible schedule without a boss and specific deadlines makes you feel rudderless, working for yourself can be a challenge. It’s easy to do little or nothing when you have unlimited time. I’ve seen trainers struggle for months to do what could have been done in weeks or even days. To keep yourself working toward your goals without losing focus, make a realistic schedule and commit to deadlines. Avoid wasting time by structuring your workdays carefully. What days will you see clients? When will you work on training plans? When will you take care of administrative tasks? When will you spend time growing your business?

Professional image
A person hunting for a dog pro might look at the cards pinned up on her vet’s bulletin board or at the local dog park. She might do a web search. But how does she choose? As mentioned, a business that specializes in filling a particular need or speaking to a preference is an obvious route. Another vital decision-making factor, however, is the professionalism, or not, of your business materials. Given a choice, any client is going to pick the business card or web site that looks professional and established rather than printed at home on the old ink-jet. The adage ‘it takes money to make money’ applies here. Putting money and time into the development of a professional business image—logo, message, and materials—goes a long way toward building a broader client base.

Tip: Dazzle them
Spend some start-up capital on a professional look. This includes your name and logo design, marketing materials such as business cards and brochures, and any materials you leave with clients—contracts, homework sheets, client instructions.

A hallmark of the successful trainer is to prioritize working relationships, and carefully cultivate and maintain them. Letting one client after another fade into the woodwork is a mistake. Smart dog pros follow up with clients, even if they aren’t currently using services, because staying on your clients’ radar screen means you’re at hand when a need arises—for them or for a friend’s dog. Collegial relationships are equally important. They allow you to keep up with industry standards, exchange best practices, and support each other by brainstorming difficult situations, acting as each other’s support systems and, most importantly, through mutual referrals. A separation anxiety trainer, for example, is likely to receive referrals from other trainers not interested in or willing to take sep anx cases if she fosters strong collegial relationships. And she can return the favor when she gets calls outside of her own comfort or skill zone. I’ve seen many niche-based dog pros form strong networks and build prosperous businesses with very little marketing expense.

Tip: Invest time in people
Follow up with former clients. Take an interest in the progress of their pooch beyond your own involvement. And cultivate relationships with pros in the area—how might you be mutually supportive? What do you each do differently and might you trade referrals?

How comfortable are you with risks? Starting most dog businesses takes less capital than most enterprises, but you still run the risk of losing money and possibly failing. It takes tenacity and perspective to face such prospects and still work hard and enthusiastically. I’ve seen many trainers quit or go back to part-time work long before their businesses could reasonably be expected to succeed.

Tip: Know thyself
Are you comfortable dipping into your savings or borrowing money? Do you enjoy solving problems? Do you stick with your plans over time? Could you see yourself doing this in five years? Do you enjoy a variety of tasks? If you’ve answered yes to most of these, self-employment could be perfect for you.

When you run a small business you have to oversee everything. You may be an excellent dog trainer or pet sitter but are you ready to be a bookkeeper, accountant, marketing manager, secretary, and office manager? A key to successful full-time business ownership is to recognize your weaknesses and subcontract tasks that confound you or that require expertise you don’t possess.

Tip: Assess your skills
List the skills required to run your business. Then ask yourself: What are you good at? Where do your interests lie? Which tasks can you readily do? Which will stress you, weaken the business, or possibly be left undone? For those, get help. Trade skills with a friend or hire a contractor.

The must-knows: taxes & insurance
Self-employment unfortunately comes with the 15% so-called ‘Self Employment Tax,’ but this is off-set by a deduction of almost half that. Still, take it into account before you decide to make the jump to full time. Also consider becoming a Limited Liability Company. There are many advantages to operating this way, one of which is that LLCs can choose to be taxed as a sole proprietorship or as a corporation. To be sure what tax implications apply to you and what options you have, consult a qualified tax accountant. But don’t let these issues throw you. Deal with them up front so you can relax and enjoy your work with the pooches.

As for professional liability insurance, it’s easy and inexpensive for dog pros to acquire through professional associations or independent brokers. Health insurance is another matter altogether. Many part-timers stay in non-training jobs solely to retain insurance benefits. If that’s you, contact an insurance broker to discuss your insurability and consider your options. Then look into becoming an LLC. Some trainers hire employees to qualify for group insurance plans, but this is seldom cost-effective when you factor in other employee expenses, such as time spent on paperwork. A two-person LLC, however, can access the same group insurance plans. So if there’s someone you’d like to partner with or you can incorporate a spouse as a silent partner, you can usually form an LLC and get health insurance that way.

Tip: Consult the pros
Consulting a tax accountant before starting a business or going full time is always a good idea, because you will know the financial implications ahead of time. Additionally, having a professional prepare your taxes in your first year has major advantages, like avoiding mistakes and relieving stress. But it also provides a model for doing them yourself in subsequent years, and often saves you money because the professionals know of deductions and other details that can benefit you at tax time. And if you think you might have difficulty procuring private health insurance, talk to an insurance broker before you launch your business.

Will it work?
Finally, if you’re poised to take the plunge, but worry about whether you’ll be able to afford electricity, try this simple assessment: Figure out how much you need to live on each year. Be detailed and realistic and don’t forget the annual or occasional expenses like taxes, insurance, car repair, etc. Then assess your competition—what are others in the area charging, and what services do they provide? Use this information to determine your own rates. Now estimate a reasonable, conservative number of clients per month and year, being careful to consider seasonal variables. Then do the math—does it add up? If it doesn’t, don’t give up—go back to the drawing board to see what kind of creative solutions are waiting. Other people are doing it. You can too.